Field guide apps have exploded in popularity, but apps created to teach bird songs are few and far between. While field guide apps have vast song libraries, they do not offer systematic methods for studying bird songs. Larkwire, a bird song app that I reviewed here and here, was, as far as I know, the first app to use games and progress meters to teach songs.
Now I have been given the chance to review a new bird song learning app, iKnowBirdSongs, which uses a game format similar to Larkwire’s.
Larkwire uses a radical approach: rather than sorting the birds taxonomically, Larkwire groups the songs based on similarity, connecting potentially confusing species into one group, even if they are as unrelated as Red-eyed Vireos and Scarlet Tanagers. These unique and useful song groups, in addition to providing an easy-to-use interface, field identification mode, and mastery levels, make Larkwire an extremely useful and fun app. Larkwire does have drawbacks, however. Its two apps, “Land Birds” and “Water Birds,” are a bit pricey for the complete suite or species, although there are more economical sub-sets ($3.95-$44.90, depending on how many species you want to include), and each complete set only has 250-350 species. Still, Larkwire is a solid tool that sets a high bar for bird song learning apps, and I was curious to compare it to iKnowBirdSongs, which sounded like a cost-effective alternative ($9.99, and 15% of every sale goes to Cornell Lab of Ornithology to “support better birding and important conservation and educational work.”)
Although it focuses mainly on passerines, iKnowBirdSongs offers 371 bird species, more than the 344 in Larkwire: Land Birds. Larkwire: Land Birds, however, offers 1670 recordings, three times as many as iKnowBirdSongs’ 570. While it may not have as many examples of geographical song variation as Larkwire, iKnowBirdSongs has a game mode that lets you create and categorize your own groups of bird songs to practice according to similarity and difficulty. It offers a much more customizable interface than Larkwire, allowing you to easily select varied and different species, but this individualized interface takes practice to learn and personalize.
I decided to dive into the app, so I loaded every single song into one deck of flashcards and began. It was easy–too easy. Instead of being quizzed on the differences among high-pitched warblers, as I am on Larkwire, my multiple-choice options were spread across completely different families, and it was easy, for instance, to identify the song as a jay and select the only jay in the list. Because studying five hundred songs one at a time, with only four random choices each, is not very productive, I would need to subdivide the songs into study groups.
One of the major differences between iKnowBirdSongs and Larkwire is Larkwire’s pre-categorized groups. These song-learning groups sort similar-sounding songs together, making it easier to learn them, even if they’re from different families. This is a major selling point of Larkwire, and it’s certainly one of my favorite features. iKnowBirdSongs requires you to create these groups, or study decks, yourself, and sorting each species into the proper groups is time-consuming. Replicating all of Larkwire’s carefully sorted song groups is a daunting task.
While it takes more effort, the ability to mix and match the song groups in iKnowBirdSongs does offer a more personalized approach. iKnowBirdSongs’ personalization can account for different listeners who hear bird songs differently. Larkwire’s new Playlist function offers similar customization, but it is not as efficient as iKnowBirdSongs’ streamlined study deck system. The customization tools also make it easier to select birds for groups. While categorizing birds into similar-sounding groups can take time, iKnowBirdSongs can filter groups by taxonomy, region, or even seasons. This filtering makes it much easier to use as a local review app for studying birds in specific regions. In a clever use of GPS technology, iKnowBirdSongs uses the iPhone’s location finder to select only species found in your specific region.
In addition, iKnowBirdSongs has a unique approach to determining mastery. Bird song learning is a continuous task; it requires repetition and relearning, particularly during non-breeding seasons. Larkwire focuses on the repetition, using colors to show mastery (green for beginner and gold for master), and over time, these colors fade, indicating when it is time to re-learn songs. iKnowBirdSongs, on the other hand, has a much simpler technique: simply tap a button to put a song into your Mastered List, and untap it to move it back into the Study List. Both approaches have pros and cons. It can take a while for Larkwire’s mastery indicators to catch up with actual personal skill, particularly with distinctive calls that are easy to learn, but iKnowBirdSongs’ basic approach does not offer Larkwire’s sophisticated progress goals, and it is easy to inadvertently remove a bird from your study group.
iKnowBirdSongs offers a species details page with basic information such as size, alpha code, range map, and habitat preference, making it like a hybrid between a field guide app and Larkwire, which describes the songs in detail instead. The species details page is certainly helpful for a beginning birder who needs to decide local birds to study. Indeed, many of iKnowBirdSongs’ unique traits are designed for local bird study.
iKnowBirdSongs is certainly a good bird song learning app. Both iKnowBirdSongs and Larkwire are built on the same basic multiple-choice game, with slight variations. While iKnowBirdSongs lacks many of Larkwire’s unique features, its endless customizations and basic trivia game are still useful, and it has a diverse song library. I was surprised by the variability in bird songs between the two apps. The songs in one app tend to get repetitive, and it’s easy to simply memorize them rather than actually learn the characteristics. Switching between the apps provides a change of pace and reinforces the actual song, rather than the individual recording. I will still rely heavily upon Larkwire, with its progress meters, Field Mode, and diverse song collection as a good foundation for learning the songs of the entire Eastern U.S. I will use iKnowBirdSongs, on the other hand, when I want a more customizable field experience.
Thanks to Flipcard Apps for providing a complimentary review copy of iKnowBirdSongs.